Tug of War: Putin, Nato and Ukraine
"It is the people who build cities, while the madness of princes destroy them"
In the space of a bewildering few weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin's assault on Ukraine has violently upended Europe’s geopolitics. Ukrainian leaders already talk of World War III, and Mr Putin has cocked the nuclear gun.
While the gastronomic salons of Kyiv pointed to Ukraine’s aspiration to be another prosperous EU country, the Kremlin is dragging Europe - and the world - back into the unfinished business of the 20th century, and even back further into the Russian imperium of a distant era.
"Putin has articulated an idea of there being a 'Russky Mir' or a 'Russian World,’" Fiona Hill, the former US official specialising in Russia, told Politico this week.
"This idea of a Russian World means re-gathering all the Russian-speakers in different places that belonged at some point to the Russian tsardom."
While the invasion of Crimea in 2014 was denied and then cloaked in Kremlin double-speak, these days the Russian president is viscerally upfront about what he thinks about Ukraine - ie, that it doesn’t deserve to exist.
Wedged between the "new Europe" of former satellite states and Mr Putin’s Russia, Ukraine’s fate was never going to be easily resolved. Add to the mix the Kremlin’s heavy emphasis on Kyivan Rus’, the 9th-13th century dynasty, which has been the font of Russia’s origin myths.
The roots of the invasion can be traced, however, to a more recent era.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist thanks to a late night meeting in a Belarus hunting lodge on 8 December 1991.
In the lodge were the presidents of three soviet republics: Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus and Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk, whose parliament had overwhelmingly voted for independence from the USSR the previous week.
Thus, the Soviet Union was consigned to history, literally overnight, but Ukraine was having no truck with a new Russian dominated union. In the event, a commonwealth of independent states was created.
Yeltsin was not the only one who feared "full" independence for Ukraine.
America was also cool on the idea.
On 1 August 1991, President George Bush told Ukraine’s parliament: "Freedom is not the same as independence.
The speech had gone down "about as well as cod-liver oil", one Kyiv-based diplomat told the Los Angeles Times.
Third largest nuclear power
Despite Bush’s (and Yeltsin’s) warnings, 90% of Ukrainians voted for independence that December.
In Crimea, with a large Russian-speaking population, 54% voted in favour, while in the Donbas region - where Russia would later establish two secessionist areas in 2014 - some 80% approved of independence.
But by gaining independence, Ukraine had also overnight become the world’s third largest nuclear power. It had inherited 1,900 nuclear warheads and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons.
Washington believed that only Russia should emerge from the debris of the USSR with its nuclear weapons intact. Bush and Yeltsin worked together to persuade Kyiv to de-nuclearise.
Thanks to the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine was biddable. However, there had been clashes between Kyiv and Moscow over the fate of the Black Sea fleet, stationed in (now Ukrainian) Crimea.
If the newly independent country was going to give up its nukes, it wanted financial and political guarantees, including recognition by Russia of Ukraine’s borders.
That, at least, would offer a brow-beaten Ukraine further comfort. However, Kyiv had no illusions about Russia’s intentions in keeping its promises over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Yeltsin had already written to Clinton the previous year to complain about the desire of newly liberated Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO.
The Russian public, he said, would see this as "the neo-isolation" of Russia, and would violate the treaty establishing German unity in 1990.
"The spirit of the treaty," Yeltsin wrote, "precludes the option of expanding the NATO zone into the East."
Indeed, much of the Russian bitterness, from Yeltsin to Putin, goes back to German unification in 1990.
While a lot has been written in recent weeks based on the recollections of diplomats and foreign ministers, what exactly was promised to Moscow about NATO expansion when Germany was unified remains a source of debate.
The German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, haunted by Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest in 1956, said in January 1990 that Nato should propose that "whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact, there will be no expansion of NATO territory to the east and closer to the borders of the Soviet Union."
Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet leader, said that Germany and America had promised him that NATO would not expand to the east, but he later said the topic was not discussed.
James Baker has denied promises were made, yet the former British prime minister John Major, on a visit to Moscow in March 1991, said that "nothing of the sort would happen" when asked about possible NATO membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic.
But by 1997, the momentum of central and eastern European countries joining NATO became unstoppable. Yeltsin approved their membership, but complained he had been pressured into doing so. In 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer stationed in East Germany, succeeded Yeltsin. This changed everything.
"In contrast to Yeltsin," wrote Plokhy and Sarotte in Foreign Affairs, "Putin made a concerted effort to reassert Russian influence in the post-Soviet space, first through political and economic means and then by using military force. Western policymakers, however, clung to the belief that Putin had been installed to continue the domestic and international course established by Yeltsin."
The West either misread or underestimated both Putin’s growing resentment, and his simultaneous squeezing of the institutions of liberal democracy.
In 2004, eight eastern and central European countries joined the EU.
Among them Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania also joined NATO. This was a bitter blow to Putin: the Baltics had been part of the Soviet Union.
Whatever about poking the bear, the candidate countries had witnessed Russia’s brutal wars against Chechnya, Transnistria and Abkhazia. Joining NATO commanded strong popular support.
But Ukraine was left exposed. There was no prospect of either EU or NATO membership.
In 2004 after the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory in a rigged election, tens of thousands of demonstrators launched the Orange Revolution, a grassroots bid to end corruption and to steer Ukraine towards the West.
Similar colour revolutions broke out elsewhere in the former Soviet space, in Georgia and in Kyrgyzstan.
The UK, France and Germany argued that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership be kept in the balance. The final text was watered down to a promise that they could join some day (but with no timetable to do so).
Just four days later Russia attacked Georgia, ostensibly to protect the two pro-Russian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
While hostilities were limited, the Kremlin ended up recognising the two enclaves and steadily increased Russia’s military presence there.
Mr Putin had two reasons to oppose colour revolutions: he regarded those countries as part of Russia’s domain; they also posed a direct threat to his personal regime, should ordinary Russians decide to have a colour revolution of their own.
Ukraine continued to push for a European destiny. In 2013, when the country was about to enter a new EU-Ukraine association agreement, Mr Putin, now aligning himself more aggressively with Kyiv’s Orthodox Christian origins, pressured the then president Viktor Yanukovych to reject the deal in favour of a closer relationship with Moscow (along with $15 billion in aid).
The move prompted mass outrage and weeks of protests in Maidan, the main square in Kyiv.
A furious Mr Putin, who the year before had faced middle-class street protests in Moscow after he returned to the presidency in a questionable election, encouraged the brutal suppression of the protests.
On 18 February 2014, 107 people were shot dead. In the upheaval that followed, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Mr Putin sent Russian troops to seize Crimea, and fomented a secessionist uprising in the pro-Russian eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The notion that Ukraine had somehow been taken over by fascists was embedded in the Kremlin’s narrative.
NATO's eastern expansion
According to experts, Mr Putin saw the polarisation in America and Europe as evidence that democracy was in decline: it was time to act.
The irony is that there was no question of Ukraine joining NATO any time soon.
In December, having massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders, Moscow published two draft treaties it wanted America and NATO to sign: the demands included a formal halt to NATO’s eastern expansion, a permanent freeze on further expansion of NATO’s bases and weapons systems in central and eastern Europe, an end to Western military assistance to Ukraine, and a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
Theories that Putin was bluffing to extract maximum concessions have proved sadly naive.
Furthermore, having failed to capture Kyiv quickly and force the government of Volodymr Zelenskiy into submission, Mr Putin appears hell bent on levelling cities to the ground and causing mass civilian casualties in order to get his way.
As for Mr Putin’s angry-dreamy discourses about Russia and Ukraine’s ancient and spiritual brotherhood, ask the residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s most Russian city, where civilian casualties are soaring, how they now feel about Mr Putin’s idea of brotherhood.